Tuesday, January 20, 2009

New York Book Tour Diary 2: Japan and Mad Men Avenue

October 14, the second day of my New York Book Tour for Amorous Woman began with a gentle earthquake rumbling beneath my bed. California girl that I am, it took me a moment to realize this was the subway, the A-train that I’d taken in from the airport the day before, perhaps? My first night in NYC had been a bit restless. I was not yet used to the sounds of the urban forest: the sirens, the Village merrymakers passing on the sidewalk just feet from my door, the clanking of dumpsters at dawn. The Beverly Hills Hotel had roused me with the sound of crickets—but I didn’t mind waking early.

I had a busy day ahead, beginning with lunch at the Rockefeller Center office of the person who made the entire Japan-related part of my tour possible, Hiroaki Sato. Sato-sensei—who prefers Hiro, but deserves full honorifics—was known to me (though he wasn't aware of me) long before Amorous Woman. If you’ve ever read Japanese poetry in translation, it’s likely you’re reading the work of Sato-sensei. Most recently he published a gorgeous and varied volume, Japanese Women Poets, which is an amazing journey through thirteen centuries of female poetic masterpieces. But Sato-sensei is also a columnist for The Japan Times and a businessman. Most importantly, he has the open-mindedness, humor and generosity to help a new novelist with a dirty book to promote. Sato-sensei introduced me to the Nichbei (Japanese-American) Exchange, a group of Japanese and Americans in the New York area who met regularly to network and discuss culture and business. His introduction was also responsible for my dream-come-true reading at Kinokuniya in midtown. None of this would have happened without his kind influence. This is a fact.

Dressed in my business suit of black slacks and tweed jacket, I walked up to Rockefeller Center. Again the morning was warm and summery, without that extra intensity of scent one must endure on a real summer day. I passed the New York Public Library with its famous lions, walked by a film crew doing something—a movie or TV show?—and lots of New York shops, bodegas and restaurants. On the way, I stopped in at a place Sato-sensei had recommended: a Japanese sweet shop called Minamoto Kitchoan at 49th and 5th Avenue. The shop was seasonally decorated for Shichi-go-san, the autumn festival to bless children aged seven, five and three (odd numbers are lucky in Japan). Better still, it was full of autumnal treats made with chestnuts, sweet potatoes and sweet bean paste. I bought a selection for my family from the sweets that had a longer shelf-life and a chestnut daifuku for myself (a fresh "great luck" sweet that had to be eaten that day), sad that the “frequent buyers card” would be of limited use to me!

Then I headed over to Sato-sensei’s office for a bento lunch with him and his assistant, a charming young woman named Natsuki, who had just moved to New York. Over grilled salmon and rice, we chatted and I asked Sato-sensei to autograph my copy of his translation of Takamura Kotaro’s A Brief History of Imbecility. This was a text I’d used in my past life as an adjunct professor of Japanese literature—who would have thought I’d meet the translator under such circumstances one day?

When lunch was over, we said our temporary good-byes, knowing we would all meet again that night for my presentation to the Nichibei Exchange at a tony law firm on Park Avenue. I decided to return to Greenwich Village via Madison Avenue in honor of “Mad Men.” A few blocks later, I passed the Roosevelt Hotel at Madison and 46th, where Don Draper was exiled by his wife, Betty, when she caught him having an affair with a client’s wife (unbeknownst to Betty, that affair was only the tip of the iceberg, but she felt she deserved total fidelity—which of course she did).

Snapping a few photos, I wandered on, musing over the phenomenon of “Sex and the City” tours—which kept my sister’s neighborhood thriving--and wondering if there would be a “Mad Men” tour some day. As I neared Grand Central Station, the traffic slowed to a standstill, fifty horns honking at once—the symphony sounds of New York (I’d heard that’s illegal, but it wasn’t stopping the honkers). I noticed a huge gathering of police outside one of the exits, but strode on—this was nothing unusual for Manhattan, no doubt.

Passing the New York City Science and Industry Library, a poster for an exhibit there caught my eye. “Not A Cough in a Carload: Images from the Tobacco Industry’s Campaign to Hide the Hazards of Smoking.” On Madison Avenue, with Don Draper’s ghost hovering, I thought it was practically my duty to stop in for a look at the work of fiction writers who actually get paid good money for what they do. And indeed, the exhibit was good for a wry chuckle--although dark as well, because my father died of smoking complications--at the way ad men had reassured smokers that cigarettes weren't so bad, or at least some of them were better than others.

There were testimonials by doctors who smoked a certain healthier brand, celebrities assuring us average folk their brand didn’t make them cough, and best of all, ominous ads showing the blimp-like obesity of people who’d stopped smoking.

And what the hell does "toasted" mean anyway?

I was soon surfeited on the ad men's sinister magic and started on my way through the gorgeous afternoon, where more surprises with a Japanese flavor awaited. In Madison Square Park at 24th and Madison, I noticed some interesting structures perched in the trees. It turns out they were part of an installation of treehouses by Tadashi Kawamata, and indeed the varied construction made me pause and think about the natural and art and what it all means. Yes, my New York trip was artistically nourishing all around! With a few hours to pass before my talk, I proceeded to Washington Square Arch, the home of “Lonely Onanista” EllaRegina, but I couldn’t stop to chat because the monument was surrounded by construction. So instead I browsed through the NYU bookstore and pretended I was taking various classes in journalism, theatre, Japanese history and classics. Fortunately for my expense account, I didn't buy any books!

Back at my sister's apartment--my dressing room--I ate my "great luck" sweet and rehearsed my upcoming lecture. Primping a bit to look professional, I hit the streets again, walking to the meeting at the law firm on Park Avenue. There was more security, more swanky business surroundings, all such a foreign scene to soccer-mom me, more foreign than Japan really. The conference room where the Nichibei Exchange meets is a grand affair, all marble and leather, where “important” things are done and decided. I felt out of place, but then I thought, what’s more important than talking frankly about sex and stereotypes between the US and Japan? Lydia, my Amorous Woman, has taken me to some surprising places and this surely rubbed shoulders with Dr. Suzy’s pad to top the list. Although, of course, there were no rocking chairs with sex toys attached in plain view (I didn't check the closets--that part came later!)

To start off the meeting, we went around the room and introduced ourselves. There were fifteen in the audience, and all were impressively eloquent about their interest in Japan and their current careers. Japanese, Americans, Asian-Americans, each had come to love a foreign culture in their own way, but they were all “my people” in spirit. Inspired by their example, I pretended I was erudite and knowledgable, too! Then, because I was speaking to an audience who knew Japan intimately, some more intimately than I do, I focused my talk on the specific ways I borrowed from Ihara Saikaku, the 17th century author of The Life of An Amorous Woman. I then went on to mention some of the stereotypes Westerners have of the Japanese and how I handled them in my book.

To make a long talk shorter, I basically argued that the West sees Japanese women as “geisha” and Japanese men as workaholic businessmen and/or sexual perverts. Then I talked about how I tried to show independent female characters, as well as kind, self-controlled and genuinely sexy Japanese men.

An example of the first was Lydia’s best friend, Chieko, who writes ladies’ comics, that is, sexually explicit comics aimed at a female audience that were a boom in the early 1990s. This character is based on interviews a friend of mine did with real ladies’ comic artists as well as some very non-geisha-like students of mine. In terms of male “perverts,” I admitted that I did include a shibari (artful) bondage scene—figuring this was practically a requirement in a book about sex in Japan--where the Japanese man ties up Lydia and then proceeds to take advantage of her helplessness BUT in an unexpected way. He uses the opportunity to tell her what he really thinks of her!

Sometimes I played to stereotype, as with Kimura, a wealthy playboy who frequents hostess clubs, the tsu of Saikaku’s age, but again I try to humanize these characters. For example, with Kimura, I try to show how his motivations arise from his impoverished childhood during the war and how this was played out in his attempts to feed and take care of Lydia. As an example of my strategy, I read the scene in the restaurant with Dr. Shinohara, who is a very appealing and wise older man, not to mention very sexy!

When the formal part of my talk was done, we had a very thoughtful question and answer period where we all shared experiences and ideas, kind of a more formal version of the many evenings I bonded with fellow gaijin over beer and bar snacks. Many people bought a copy of the book and I made plans to meet later with a delightful business consultant, Yvonne Burton of Japan-US Business News—more on her later! Afterwards, Sato-sensei treated me and Natsuki to a Japanese dinner at Asuza of Japan in midtown at East 44th and Fifth Avenue. We ate small-plates style: smoky yakitori, steamed egg custard, grilled octopus, a spicy Korean boiled dish, chicken with shiso, miso soup and plenty of good sake. We chatted about money, sex, Japan and America (Natsuki had gone to college in West Virginia of all places), and had a wonderful time. Relaxed and fortified with rice wine (actually it’s a rice beer, but that’s info for Japan nerds), I even spoke a bit of Japanese to the mama-san on the way out, thanking her for the delicious dinner. It was almost as if I were back in Japan….

Sato-sensei and I shared a taxi as far as his apartment, gliding through the neon-lit canyons in a happy haze. Walking the few remaining blocks to my “hotel,” I was stopped by a tourist asking for directions. “Is the Village Vanguard around here?” I was about to say I was a tourist, too, but I happened to turn my head and see the Vanguard sign glowing in the darkness to my left, just like on those Miles Davis CD’s. “It’s right over there,” I said casually, as if the Village were my home. And for that moment, it was.

Next: a real trip into the past, chocolate orgasms, and a celebrity sighting


Anonymous said...

Wow, this is fantastic. What an amazing time. New York is fascinating as it is but to experience all this on one trip is truly wonderful. You never know where connections are going to lead and that is a fascinating part of discovering life.

Craig Sorensen said...

What lovely ad-ventures (sorry!)

How cool to be among people who share your passions, and walk among Mad Men stomping grounds.

Thanks for taking me along!

LVLM(Leah) said...

You move in amazing company.

I found your account of your talk with others who would know very interesting. How you explained that you tried to mix up the stereotypes. And yet you managed to capture the true essence of how it is in Japan as a gaijin in your book.

It makes me curious what those audience members were thinking.

Donna said...

Thanks so much for coming along with me Judy, Craig and MB.

Yeah, good question as to what they were thinking. A number of them shared their stories with me. One guy had been a priest, but he hung out with geisha in Kamishichi-cho. He's not a priest anymore, lol.

Because I read the part that talks about Tokyo gaijin versus Kyoto gaijin, we had an interesting chat about that. Most were Kyoto types at heart, if not address!

SusanD said...

You're so funny, Donna, "pretending" to be erudite and knowledgable, indeed. A great snapshot of your New York.

EllaRegina said...

SusanD beat me to it. Right, Dr. Storey, you really fooled them again with your "intelligence." ;-)

Sorry I couldn't come out and play. That construction mess really cramped my style.

This is most fascinating reportage!!!

Anonymous said...

What a delightful account. Thanks for sharing all this! It's great to hear anecdotes about those supportive of you and your work. :)

Ha, I join Susan and EllaRegina in definitely noticing and laughing at your comment about "pretending" to be erudite and knowledgable. ;)